The Real Revolution in Military Affairs

It doesn’t seem all that long since the United States was considering how advancements in military technology would allow it to use advances in long-range precision weapons, intelligence sensors, and command and control capabilities to dominate conventional wars. The Gulf War in 1991, the fighting over Kosovo, the initial invasion of Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple a Saddam Hussein all seemed to prove that superior technology and tactics had led to a “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) that would dominate modern warfare.

No one can deny the importance of such changes today. Precision strike capability combined with superior intelligence and command and control capabilities have changed the face of conventional warfare. At the same time, the Afghan War, the Iraq War, the fighting in Gaza, the fighting in Yemen, the fighting in Ukraine, and the other conflicts following the political upheavals in the Middle East have all involved a different kind of revolution.

Most modern wars have become irregular or asymmetric conflicts between states and nonstate actors. The resulting wars are not high-technology duels between conventional forces, but struggles that pit governments and their allies against opponents that fight along religious and cultural lines and use their own internal divisions and populations as weapons.

Many of these conflicts are shaped by religious ideology and extremist sectarian differences. Most are shaped by civil-military struggles that are driven by weak or failed governments and economies, the absence of a meaningful rule of law, and demographic pressures throughout the developing world that have created a “youth explosion” in terms of the demand for education and jobs and pressure on internal stability.

The nonstate actors that shape most such conflicts do attack the full range of national security forces; rather, they attack the weaknesses in local governments and the fault lines in their societies. They not only “swim” among the population, to use Mao Tse-tung’s terminology on guerilla warfare, they use that same population as weapons and as the equivalent of human shields. They counter high-technology strike capabilities with people, propaganda, and by exploiting the civil casualties and collateral damage that high-technology weapons create. They use insurgency and political influence as additional weapons and tactics, and they fight as much on the civil level as they do using weapons and terrorism.

Gaza is just the most recent case where the use of the population as shields, and manipulation of popular support, acts as a critical limiting factor on the ability of high-technology forces to actually use their military capabilities. Israel has increasingly had to justify every strike that produces civilian casualties or collateral damage in each new round of fighting, but it is scarcely the only example of the growing demand for “perfect war” in which precision and improvements in command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I/) and battle management are expanded to reduce or eliminate civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Ever since the first Gulf War in 1990–1991 showed what precision weapons could do in selectively hitting targets and avoiding civilian casualties, the United States has progressively had to cut back on the use of airpower and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs). It had to do so in Iraq to win popular support. It had to do so in Afghanistan both to win popular support and as a result of Taliban and Pakistani propaganda and political pressure. It now faces a future environment that seems certain to further limit the kind of strikes it can make with airpower and missiles, as well as sweeps and raids by ground forces in populated areas.

The real revolution in military affairs is forcing modern states to use the advancements in military technology to focus on minimizing civilian casualties and collateral damage rather than destroying the enemy. In some cases, it makes laws of war designed for totally different types of combat a political and propaganda weapon in the hands of nonstate actors and nations that use asymmetric means of combat.

This, however, is only part of the real revolution in military affairs. In most cases where nonstate actors pose a serious threat, the government is so weak, unpopular, and vulnerable that effective action requires armed nation building. The civil dimension in creating greater political stability, more effective governance, and adequate employment and economic development is at least as critical as the military dimension, and at times the political effort in fact supersedes the military fighting.

The propaganda and strategic communications aspects of the fighting become equally important. Tactical victories becomes meaningless without civil victory, and military forces alone cannot defeat the enemy. The measure of success ceases to be which side wins a given series of battles; instead, success is measured by which side has influence and control over the population.

Time and resilience become weapons, as well. There are usually no quick ways to deal with a nation’s internal economic and social problems and the failures of its political system and governance. Experience shows that long, low-level wars tend to favor the nonstate actor or simply the most persistent side. The human and political dimension in wars of attrition become the real center of gravity.

Moreover, the financial cost of war often favors the nonstate or ideological actor over modern military forces by several orders of magnitude. Less need for weapons and money by relying more on human sacrifices, martyrdom, and unconventional fighting has become another new element of the real revolution in military affairs. So has the sheer complexity of the factional and other struggles involved, along with the diversity and changing character of nonstate actors. As al Qaeda and other jihadist factions have shown, the fragmentation and diversity of nonstate actors can in effect distribute affiliated but independent militant networks that are aided by the public impact of high-technology social networks and use of the Internet.

Nations have also grasped the opportunities involved. As Iran, China, and Russia have shown, the military forces of state actors are also adapting to use irregular warfare effectively. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) now has a complex mix of asymmetric air-sea-missile-ground forces dedicated to challenging Iran’s neighbors and the United States, as well as a branch called the al Quds force dedicated to working with nonstate actors in other countries to challenge unfriendly regimes.

China has made irregular warfare a key element of every aspect of its military doctrine, has focused on political warfare in the South China Sea, and shown that it can use its coast guard and even an oil drilling platform to achieve its objectives. Russia has shown in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine just how much it has learned since its clumsier earlier attempts in Chechnya and Georgia.

Using asymmetric means to intimidate and to avoid or limit conflict has become an element of the real revolution in military affairs as well. The goal of “wars of intimation” is to win at the strategic level without ever actually fighting. The superior side is the one that can maneuver, threaten, and pressure its way to victory without ever firing a shot or at least taking a serious military risk. Here, the model advanced by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu is still as relevant as ever: “100 victories in 100 battles is simply ridiculous. Anyone who excels in defeating his enemies must triumph before his enemy’s threats become real.”

None of these developments means that “conventional war” does not remain a risk and reality. Conventional war goes on every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a constant risk in the Koreas and in the Persian Gulf. It is now a specter in every U.S. military calculation involving the emergence of China and reemergence of Russia in a far more multipolar world.

Nevertheless, the United States needs to do a far better job of coping with the real revolution in military affairs. As Afghanistan and Iraq—and Vietnam before them—have shown, the United States cannot rely on professional forces and superior technology alone to fight conventional wars, any more than it can rely on “soft power” and partnerships with weak and internally divided allies as a substitute for the use of force.

The United States must adapt its forces to fight at asymmetric levels of politico-military warfare. It must progressively improve its ability to selectively attack enemy with minimal civilian casualties and collateral damage. It must do a far better job of integrating its civil and military approaches to warfare, and it must focus far more on shaping the lasting strategic outcome of a conflict than on winning tactical victories.

Technology has not triumphed over the human dimension of warfare, and the United States must be prepared to engage in long, complex political and ideological struggles fought on local terms and under local conditions in a steadily more complex mix of state and nonstate actors. The United States needs to focus on just how different the conditions are that shape irregular or asymmetric wars in given areas of U.S. strategic interest. It is pointless to try to shape strategies and doctrine to broadly fit many different cases when so many different variables exist in the conflicts, even in a single region. The United States needs to adapt to the limits and opportunities of each case and not expect the case to adapt to its limits.

Finally, the United States needs to learn how to make choices between risky and uncertain options, rather than leap in or stand and wait. It must be prepared to actually engage in terms of local realities and the real-world capabilities of its allies and local partners, rather than its own desires. Things do not get better in irregular warfare by allowing an enemy to exploit the situation while waiting for hope to triumph over experience. They do not get better when the United States rushes in to attack a perceived enemy without honestly assessing the threat posed by the limits to its potential allies and current security partners, or ignores the fact that trying to impose its own values and warfighting methods can be a form of blindness where the United States is as much a threat to itself as the enemy.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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